Introduction to Business & Consumer Drones

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DroneWire  |  September 27, 2015
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The term “drone” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control or onboard computers”. Modern business and consumer drones are also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS), Quadcopters, and Multirotors. These devices can have any number of rotors, or even be planes. Whatever you choose to call them, these remote-controlled aircraft have spawned an emerging industry unlike anything seen since the advent of the Internet.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) predicts that within 10 years, the drone market will create over 100,000 new jobs, and generate more than $82 billion in economic activity. Spending by lobbyists who list drones as an issue has grown from $20,000 in 2001, to $186 million in 2014. In 2010, the FAA estimated that approximately 15,000 drones would be operational in the U.S. by 2020. As of September 2015, more than that number were being sold in the country every month.

In this article, DroneWire outlines the history of remote-controlled aircraft, leading into the modern era of unmanned flight for commercial operators and enthusiasts.

History of Radio Controlled Aircraft

The first U.S. patent for a radio-controlled (RC) device was issued to Nikola Tesla in 1898. That same year, Tesla used his invention to manuever a tiny ship around a pool of water in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, much to the disbelief of stunned spectators.

Other applications were quick to follow in the coming years, with military desires driving innovation. By the 1920s, radio controls were being used in torpedoes, aircraft, and navy ships used for artillery practice. This new technology eventually filtered in to the consumer market. According to the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the first radio-control model airplane competition was held in 1937.

Radio-controlled aircraft gained mainstream popularity in the 1960s, when the creation of transistor-based electronics allowed for better, servo-based mechanisms for controlling flight. In the 1970s, integrated circuitry allowed for inexpensive production of a wide range of RC devices, and paved the way for the future of this budding industry.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, RC aircraft advancements were made at a steady pace, but the devices were primarily used by a cottage industry of amateuer enthusiasts. In the early-to-mid 2000s, several technological advancements fostered the creation of a new breed of RC aircraft, multirotor helicopters, “drones”, that could be used for a wide range of business applications.

These new advancements included:

  • The evolution of LiPo (lithium-ion polymer) batteries that offer smaller units with increased storage capacity and better discharge performance.

  • Advances in small brushless motor designs that resulted in greater power conversion efficiency.

  • Increased availability of microcircuitry systems that allowed for developing compact flight control and GPS navigation systems.
These factors were coupled with significant reductions in manufacturing costs, allowing for the essential technologies behind drone flights to become cheap and accessible over a short period of time.

Early pioneers in this arena included Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine who built his first multicopter drone in 2007. Chris went on to create DIYDrones.com, now one of the world’s largest robotics development communities. Later Chris and electronics whizkid Jordi Muñoz would co-found 3D Robotics, the preeminent U.S.-based drone manufacturer.

Arrival of the Modern Drone Industry

Companies like 3D Robotics and Paris-based Parrot S.A. paved the way for growing this exciting new industry, but it was Chinese innovator DJI that made “drones” a household term after launching their “Phantom” line of quadcopters in January 2013. The GPS-equipped Phantom offered impressive range and flight times, and the ability to carry a GoPro HD camera.

DJI’s quadcopter concept was an international hit, and when the company released their revised Phantom 2 aircraft later that same year, they added a 3-axis gimbal for stabilized video and tilting the camera, a video downlink for live camera viewing while the craft is airborne, and increased its flight time to over 20 minutes.

The company’s Phantom 3 “prosumer” (intermediate between professional and consumer models) quadcopter was released April 8, 2015, and took the business and consumer drone market by storm. The Phantom 3 was packed with useful features like DJI’s Lightbridge video downlink technology, enhanced GPS navigation with added support for the Russian GLONASS system, an indoor Visual Positioning System to help avoid collisions when GPS is unavailable, and an upgraded, proprietary camera with a 12MP Sony EXMOR sensor, capable of producing 4K or 1080P HD videos.

DJI’s successes have made their founder, Frank Wang Tao, the world’s first “drone billionaire”. In 2014, DJI sold over 400,000 units, with sales tripling or quadrupling every year since 2009. Goldman Sachs’ analysts estimate the company currently holds an incredible 70% of the global drone industry market share.

DJI’s command of international drone sales is impressive, but new drone manufacturers are entering the market at a frantic pace. One such company, Yuneec, recently received $60 million in a round of funding from Intel. Smaller UAV creators with focus on specific commercial applications are forming new companies every month.

Commercial Drone Applications

With the drone industry beginning to mature, an extraordinary range of capabilities started to emerge, with positive, widespread uses for businesses and society as a whole. These include:

Aerial Photography & Videography

Perhaps the greatest impact to any industry from drone technology has been in the areas of aerial photography and videography. Historically, photographers and cinematography professionals would be relegated to leasing expensive helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft time to accomplish their goals. Now, for less than the cost of a one-day helicopter rental, many photographers are acquiring and operating their own UAS platforms.

Search & Rescue

Unmanned Aerial Systems present a complete game changer for search and rescue (SAR) operations, having already developed a string of successes over the past year. In 2014, an 82-year-old man suffering from dementia went missing in Wisconsin. Authorities searched for the man without success over three days using a helicopter, dogs, and hundreds of volunteers. Colorado drone operator David Lesh happened to be visiting the area and enlisted his aircraft in the search, finding the elderly man in a cornfield within 20 minutes of taking flight.

Several companies are now working on semi-autonomous SAR drones that can programatically perform grid overflights, mark locations, and even drop supplies such as food, a radio, or life preservers.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement is another sector in which drones are expected to have a profound impact. In the past year, drones have been used by authorities to identify and apprehend suspects, monitor barricade situations, and investigate crime or accident scenes. Dozens of state and local law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are currently researching or implementing UAV programs; this trend is expected to become widespread over the next few years.

Firefighting & Medical Emergency Response

Across the United States, fire departments, emergency medical services, and disaster management agencies are testing and implementing drone programs that have already proven their worth for saving lives. In July 2015, Fire chief Frank Roma used his personal Phantom 3 drone to >deliver an extra life jacket to two boys stranded on a rock in the middle of a raging river in Auburn, Maine.

Wildlife managers are now testing drones to coordinate and monitor firefighters working on wildfires, detect heat spots in forests, and guide firefighting aircraft with better precision.

One company has even developed a drone that can quickly deliver a defibrilator to a heart-attack victim.

Journalism

UAS usage by journalists and media outlets has been slow to take hold, primarily due to legal uncertainties stemming from the FAA’s ongoing development of policies covering commercial uses. Like any other industry that can benefit from this new technology, drones are expected to play a large role in the future of news production.

Industrial Inspections

Small UAV use for industrial applications is another area where drones stand to prevent injuries and save lives. Already, these multirotor aircraft are being used to scan power lines, gas pipelines, power plant flare stacks, radio towers, bridges and many other structures that humans would have had to climb in the past to make quick, routine inspections.

Insurance Industry Inspections

Drones stand to play a major role in the insurance industry, from business liability and property insurance to use by claims adjusters for safely inspecting property damage. Commercial UAV’s will allow insurance companies to quickly and efficiently survey large areas following storm damage, while providing reduced costs over prior inspection methods.

Home Inspections

Home service and inspection companies are expected to embrace UAS technology as well. Businesses can now use an inexpensive UAS aircraft to perform roof, chimney, or gutter inspections while spending less time on ladders and adding to their safety and overall efficiency. Infrared cameras mounted to drones can circle the average single-family home in just minutes and quickly detect heating or cooling leaks.

Construction Industry Inspections

Construction companies are already using drones to survey land, track progress, and supervise adherance to safety protocols. In the past, builders and land developers have relied on photographers using manned aircraft to monitor projects. Now, inexpensive UAS platforms are offering them greater flexibility, at less cost.

Aerial Mapping & Surveying

Driven by a wide range of available software and purpose-built UAS platforms, the mapping and surveying industries stand to benefit from a groundbreaking array of new capabilities in the coming years. Drones carrying precision sensing technologies like LIDAR are already replacing the more expensive use of manned aircraft that has historically filled these roles.

Transportation of Goods

Retail giant Amazon announced plans for a drone delivery capability in 2013. Dubbed “Prime Air”, the service would allow for delivering small packages to consumers within 30 minutes of ordering. Amazon’s annual research and development budget is over $1 billion, and many analysts agree that the company is spending a lot to make this concept a reality.

In July 2015, the first government-approved drone delivery took place in the U.S., after the FAA approved a largely symbolic delivery of medicine to a remote clinic in Wise, Virginia.

Public Safety & Security

One of the more interesting uses of drones in the past year, has been the monitoring of public beaches for sharks. Lifeguards in over a half-dozen towns in the U.S. alone used consumer drones for this purpose in 2015. Government organizations and private security firms are also investigating the use of drones for monitoring properties.

Scientific & Environmental Studies

Universities and scientists have already embraced the use of UVA platforms for monitoring wildlife, studying wetlands, and keeping tabs on environmental concerns. One researcher recently published a report that found drones could cut the costs of surveying tropical forest recovery in half.

Modern Business & Consumer Drones

Although new drone manufacturing companies are being launched every month, there are a few that have already asserted their dominance across the market. Here are some popular models for both business and enthusiast operators.

Business Drones
DJI Spreading Wings S1000
DJI Spreading Wings S1000+

DJI’s S1000+ is among the most evolved UAS platforms for professional aerial imagery and other business applications. Features of the 8-rotor “Octocopter” include carbon fiber components, retractable landing gear, folding arms for easy storage and travel, and a wide range of professional gimbals and accessories. Having 8 rotors offers redundancy should a motor fail, allowing the operator to land safely without damaging the drone or its camera gear.


Tayzu Titan X8
Tayzu Titan X8

The Tayzu Titan X8 is a heavy-lift UAV capable of safely deploying DSLR cameras and professional image acquisition systems, such as the Red Epic Dragon. The Titan X8 offers remarkably stable flight in windy conditions, and features the same 8-rotor redundancy as the DJI S1000+. Tayzu offers an optional “Gemini SAR Pod” with FLIR cameras and safe, green-laser subject marking for Search and Rescue or Law Enforcement Use.


Yuneec Tornado H920
Yuneec Tornado H920

Yuneec’s Tornado H920 is a new 6-rotor “Hexacopter” platform tuned for the professional aerial imagery market. The H920 features an optional gimbal for the popular Panasonic Lumix GH4, offering operators with a micro four thirds imaging system that can accept a range of lenses for high-quality HD video and still photos.



Consumer Drones
DJI Phantom 3

DJI Phantom 3
DJI’s Phantom 3 line of “prosumer” (professional-consumer hybrid) drones represent the most prolific modern UAV systems in existence. Offered in 3 models, Standard, Advanced, and Professional, the Phantom 3 is a feature-packed aerial imaging platform that includes GPS stabilized flight and navigation, live HD viewing from a tablet or smartphone, and a high-quality gimbal for stabilizing video and images taken with its proprietary 12MP camera.


3D Robotics Solo

3D Robotics Solo
3D Robotics’ Solo “smart” drone entered the market in 2015 and immediately drew a large following. Designed to accommodate the GoPro Hero-series action cameras via 3DR’s proprietary gimbal (sold separately), the Solo also features live HD video streaming to the operator’s tablet. Notably, the Solo features two onboard Linux-based computers, one for operating the flight controls, and another for running custom tasks that can be developed specifically for the craft, and devices that use its expansion bay.


Yuneec Typhoon Q500

Yuneec Typhoon Q500
Yuneec’s Typhoon series of consumer drones offers an impressive design along with a 20+ minute flight time and 3-axis gimbal for a GoPro Hero or the company’s own HD or 4k camera. The Typhoon’s included controller has a built-in touchscreen, negating the need for a third-party tablet.


Drone Safety & Privacy Concerns

Lack of public education on the UAS industry, and selective reporting of drone issues by the national media, have created a sense of distrust toward these aircraft and their operators; often bordering on hysteria.

The Federal Aviation Administration has stoked public concerns over reckless drone operations by claiming that pilot sightings of UAVs have “soared” in 2015. However, when the Academy of Model Aeronautics took a closer look at the FAA’s data, they found military crashes, a UFO sighting, and other unsubstantiated findings, calling only a fraction of the records legitimately reported “close calls” and “near misses.”

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union also cite heightened privacy concerns around the country. In reality, the average professional or consumer UAV is an inefficient, impractical device for engaging in surveillance. They are loud, have flashing lights, are limited by short flight times, and the cameras they carry neither zoom nor offer the kind of resolution needed to often discern men from women at relatively short ranges.

Of course, drones can be used to monitor areas they should not, but the public faces far more “threats” to privacy from DSLR cameras with telephoto lenses, or the thousands of people carrying the latest smartphones that an individual may encounter on a daily basis.

Drone safety is a real concern, with highly publicized incidents making the news throughout 2015. In September, a teacher was arrested in New York after losing control of his 3DR Solo drone and crashing it into the stands at the U.S. Open. Later that same month, an 11-month-old girl sustained minor injuries when a drone operator lost control of his DJI Inspire 1 and crashed it while covering an event in Pasadena, California.

It’s every drone operator’s obligation, whether flying professionally or as a hobbyist, to know and understand basic safety protocols and best practices, and more importantly, to exercise common sense.

Drone Legislation & Regulation

In 2005, as drone technology started to appear throughout the domestic market, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a memorandum outlining their policy for working toward integrating drones into the national airspace.

Later, in 2007, the FAA distributed a policy statement in which they asserted that “no person may operate a UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) in the National Airspace without specific authority.” The FAA’s legal authority to enforce this policy was the subject of debate.

In both the 2005 and 2007 policy statements, the FAA pledged to perform a review of drone safety and to develop guidelines for their operation. In 2012, due in part to frustrations over the FAA’s delay in proposing and implementing comprehensive UAV regulations, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (FMRA), which directed the agency to create a “comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace” by September 2015.

The agency went on to miss several key deadlines that were outlined in the FMRA. In June 2014, the FAA announced it had received petitions for exemptions that would allow individuals and businesses to operate drones for commercial purposes. Between that time and fall 2014, this process became known as the FAA’s “Section 333 Exemption” program. By September, the agency had issued UAV flight approvals to several companies, most in the aerial imaging industry.

In February 2015, the FAA released a framework of regulations (PDF) known as the “Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking”. The notice contained proposed rules for the certification of commercial drone operators that would allow for the “routine use of certain small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in today’s aviation system, while maintaining flexibility to accommodate future technological innovations.”

As of September 24, 2015, the FAA had approved 1,658 section 333 exemptions for commercial drone operators. The FAA missed the congressionally mandated deadline for UAV integration planning on October 1, 2015.

Pirker v. FAA

In 2011, Swiss filmmaker Raphael Pirker used his styrofoam Zephyr II drone to record aerial imagery of the University of Virginia for an advertisement for its new medical center. The next year, in what became a groundbreaking case for the UAS industry, the FAA attempted to fine Pirker $10,000 for operating a commercial flight without their authorization.

Pirker chose to fight the allegations in court, and won when a judge sided with him in 2014, finding that Pirker’s was a “model aircraft”, and as such was not subject to FAA rules for manned aviation. The decision created widespread discussion on the topic of UAVs operating in the national airspace, and cast doubt on the FAA’s authority to regulate commercial drone usage.

In November 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board overturned the decision and ruled that UAVs are aircraft, and were subject to aviation laws and FAA oversight. Pirker agreed to settle for a reduced fine of $1,100 for “reckless operations”, however he admitted no wrongdoing.

Modern Drone Regulations

Today, the FAA continues to approve section 333 exemptions at a steady pace, and is making strides toward implementing a concise policy for the integration of UAS aircraft into the national airspace, and the certification of commercial operators. In September 2015, the agency announced the addition of two key executive staff members who would be tasked with leading the FAA’s “timely and efficient integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into U.S. airspace.”

The agency has exhibited a clear focus on overall UAV education and safety, through an ongoing media and public relations campaign centered on UAV safe flight practices, and by partnering with an educational campaign known as Know Before You Fly.

In 2015, drone legislation was considered by 45 states, with 19 of those states passing 25 bills.

The Future of Business & Consumer Drones

The emerging drone industry is a perfect example of technology advancing at an exponential pace. Less than a year ago, starting a business that used drones to help utility companies inspect power lines or gas pipelines seemed like a great idea. At this year’s Interdrone trade show in Las Vegas, we learned that such UAV uses are expected to be completely autonomous within a the next couple of years, with operations handled by the respective utilities.

One expectation of future drone innovations, is the ability for users to more easily customize their UAS platform for specific tasks. 3D Robotics’ Solo drone already comes with two Linux-based computers on board; one for operating the flight controls, and another for running custom tasks. The Solo drone also has an expansion port that allows for integration with a wide range of small devices.

DroneWire follows every facet of this exciting industry, and provides our readers with current information that business and hobbyist drone operators will find valuable. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay updated on all current drone issues and events.

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